Music Review: At NSO Opener, Goodwill Isn't Quite Enough

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009

The National Symphony Orchestra's season-opening concert at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night began with a tremendous amount of goodwill. The orchestra abandoned its basic black -- at least, the women did, wearing instead an array of colorful evening wear to create the appearance of a tousled garden of flowers. The program was equally gay, and equally tousled: a potpourri of dances and overtures and folk color, leavened slightly by Chopin's second piano concerto with the evening's star, Evgeny Kissin, a selection only marginally heavier than the rest.

And Iv?n Fischer, starting his second season as the orchestra's principal conductor, took the stage with his characteristic verve and energy. Bypassing the national anthem so often featured at season openers, he plunged the orchestra directly into the ever-appealing overture to Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmila," an opera chiefly known for its overture (chosen here to signal the start of the Kennedy Center's season-long focus on Russia) with such force that the exuberant shock overrode the players' tendency to lag, or the difficulty they appear to have in playing exactly together.

Goodwill was the main point of an evening that raised $1.4 million for the orchestra and was clearly intended (to judge from the musical selections) as an outright celebration. As if to reward the audience for the release of so much money into its coffers, the orchestra presented works that listeners are generally supposed to like: Johann Strauss's "Blue Danube" waltz, and -- less familiar but, if anything, even easier listening -- Kod?ly's "Dances of Gal?nta," which offered Eastern European folk flavor and a spotlight on the wind soloists, with a particularly good turn by the clarinet.

The first-half climax, before the intermission, was the appearance of Jozsef Lendvay Jr., a solo violinist who was the instrumental equivalent of a stand-up comic, in Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen." Lendvay, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the actor Oliver Platt, conjured up the play-to-the-crowd spirit of a 19th-century virtuoso. Punctuating a pregnant pause with an arch pizzicato like a punch line, he brought twitters from the audience.

Unfortunately, however, Lendvay withheld his personality just when it was wanted most. "Zigeunerweisen," like so many 19th-century faux-Hungarian favorites, consists of a rather lugubrious opening section that audibly strains at the bit, eager to burst out in a flurry of virtuosic fireworks. But while Lendvay milked the slow parts, and demonstrated considerable technical ability in the fast ones, he executed the latter with all of the excitement of a bank teller: just another day at the office. After the comic buildup, we didn't get the full payoff.

The menu's main course was fixed, in that Kissin was the soloist in the Chopin concerto, and the Chopin concerto is all that Kissin is doing with orchestras at the moment. He opened the Boston Symphony Orchestra's season with it on Thursday and will play it at Carnegie Hall with them later this week before going off to do it in Toronto over the weekend. It is not an especially profound piece, but he played it very well, fingers flowing like water over the keyboard in washes of clear sound, with insistent emphases and force to drive home what he was saying. Indeed, he played it almost as if it were profound, except that his emotional distance was such that it wasn't clear he was actually saying anything. His performance was like a brilliantly designed and engineered building that doesn't have any walls or tenants: stunning but uninhabited.

You could argue that looking for content on a gala program is beside the point. Yet Fischer always approaches music with such intensity that one expects better results than he was able to get on Saturday, when, after the verve of the opening, the music sometimes subsided to merely a dull roar. "The Dance of the Seven Veils," from Richard Strauss's opera "Salome," was a particular disappointment: It isn't a great piece in any case, but it was played here with barely a trace of sensuality, seduction or even lushness. It was simply loud.

It was also disappointing that the orchestra couldn't play better. The players make fine sounds but don't always make them together; by the "Blue Danube," even the intonation was sagging in places. Fischer's own focus seems to waver in and out: Not only did the evening sparkle less as it continued, but even within a piece there could be an audible fall-off when, after a taut opening, the playing grew blunt and blurry. The focus snapped back into place in the encore, a Slavonic dance by Dvorak, which found the fizz and crackle of the evening's start to close out the program with a pop.

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